Friday, July 18, 2014

Highlighting sports nutrition

As a man of science, I believe in using all available research to gain an edge at sports. In fact, I consider it the trump card of my training, and perhaps the reason behind why I was able to improve so much at running over the past few years. It goes without saying that any tools developed for the purpose of improving performance must be safe, legal and have a scientifically proven effect.

One aspect of running for which there is ample evidence of their benefit in training and competition is sports nutrition. Its breakthrough in popular running culture came in the form of carbohydrate gels, produced by companies such as Clif, GU, Hammer, Powerbar and others. Their low weight and volume provided increased portability while their gel-like consistency improved tolerability as compared to the classic energy or snack bar.

Now, as sports supplements have become more widely used, the notion that fueling is important is generally well accepted. However, with many athletes -- beginners and elites alike -- I've noticed that there is not enough attention to detail when it comes to this topic. In this post, I will be discussing products that I recommend using immediately before, during or after a run. For full disclosure, I would like to add that I am sponsored by Hammer, and they provide me with discounts on their products.

Hammer HEED

This is an electrolyte and carbohydrate powder, ready for drinking once its mixed with water. I use this constantly, usually immediately prior to and during training. There is strong research backing the importance of carbohydrate consumption around hard sessions, and I feel they improve the quality of my workouts by allowing me to perform at a higher level.

In contrast to Gatorade, which everyone is doubtlessly familiar with, HEED consists mostly of maltodextrin, the same sugar found in GU gels. Having previously fueled with GU, I learned to tolerate this sugar exceptionally. In contrast, Gatorade never worked as well for me, a fact I attribute primarily to its sucrose content (sucrose is a disaccharide made up of glucose and fructose). In the gut epithelial lining, sucrose is broken down into its two components, and thus people sensitive to fructose tend to not tolerate this sugar as well. Maltodextrin, on the other hand, is a glucose oligomer and does not contain any fructose.

Another benefit of HEED is that despite a similar carb content, its taste is much less sweet than that of the competition. The first time trying it I found this kind of odd, expecting a sports drink to be super sweet by definition. However, when you're on your second or third bottle of the stuff, a milder taste is very much appreciated!

Hammer Recoverite

This is basically HEED with added whey protein, offering a ratio of 4:1 of carbs to protein, which is the magic formula for optimum post-workout recovery. I carry it in a blender bottle and add water when ready, it tastes pretty great and I can strongly recommend the vanilla and chocolate flavors.

The benefit of this and other recovery drinks is that you can begin refueling instantly after a workout. This is vital since the first 30 min following conclusion of a session are window for glycogen loading, in which nearly all carbohydrates consumed are used to replenish the just depleted glycogen stores. If you are planning on back-to-back workouts (i.e. doubles, or an evening run followed by a morning run), or are in week of heavy training, maintaining topped-off glycogen stores is a top priority to be able to sustain performance, and continue training at the same level, with the same quality.

Hammer Gels

The product that originally attracted me to Hammer was introduced to me by Bremen, who swore by the Montana Huckleberry flavor. I find their fruity gels (made of real fruit) especially tasty compared to the competition, many of which use overpowering artificial flavors. For chocolate, I do prefer to stick with GU's Chocolate Outrage, as nothing beats the Belgian chocolate in their recipe. Nonetheless, if you like GU, you'll love Hammer, they are very similar products, and Hammer tends be a little better digestible. Since a few weeks, they've updated their gel bags to be less cumbersome to carry, and they now resemble the smaller GU bags.

From left to right: Hammer Gel, Recoverite and HEED.

The case for carb drinks

I'm a believer in adequate fueling for optimal running. In fact, at both big races last Spring, the half in Wilmington and the full in Vienna, I ran with a 20 oz water bottle containing 7% HEED. At Vienna, my dad handed me a second bottle at the halfway point. "Why bother carrying all the water?", you may ask. And yes, it's a pain and 20 oz feels insanely heavy 13 miles into a race.

But consider how much water you need to drink with a single gel. 1 pack weighs roughly an ounce, most of which is carbs. The optimal concentration of carbs for maximal absorption during hard efforts is 6-8%, but let's go with 10% to simplify the math. Thus, you should ideally drink 10 oz of water per pack of gel! There is no way in the world that any of us can gulp that much in an hour at water stops alone without losing time, even if we were to hit them all up along the way. Personally, I would say that the most I can drink running through water stops is 6-8 oz per hour, and if I were to consume 2 gels per hour -- which is the current recommendation -- that would leave me with a fluid deficit of 12-14 oz. The problem with not hydrating properly after consuming gels is that water is drawn from your circulation into the gut to dilute the concentrated carbs contained in the gel. Less water in your circulation, less blood volume, poorer oxygen transport, with the end result equaling poorer running performance. Of course, carrying a 20 oz bottle also incurs an economy penalty, so it's a double-edged sword.

In conclusion, and especially so in the summer heat and humidity of Baltimore, runners should re-examine their nutritional plans not only at upcoming races, but also during training units of mid to hard effort. Learning to use optimal nutrition to your advantage could result in sustaining your goal-pace for a few miles longer at your next race, completing the penultimate interval in your speed workout with the same split as the first or running doubles with a morning workout of the same high-quality as the evening!

If you're interested in trying out any Hammer products, it's best to buy directly from their website, where they offer frequent promotions as well a free shipping. If you do decide to order, make sure to use this link: - you'll receive a 15% discount on your first order, and there's a higher chance they'll sponsor me again next year!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Race Report: Vienna City Marathon

Last summer, the idea first came to my mind to run the 2014 Vienna City Marathon. Originally, I was planning on running Boston again but along the way, the notion of running in my hometown grew more and more exciting. While I lived Vienna for most of my adult life, I never experienced it from the perspective of a runner, with exception of the last few winters that I've been back to visit. In fact, before coming to Baltimore for grad school in 2010 I did not run at all, save for an occasional, once-a-month interlude with my gym's treadmill that never had me coming back for more.

Choosing Vienna meant that I would miss this year's Boston Marathon, and I knew that 2014 would be a very special edition. I had run the race last year, finishing an hour before the bombs went off. And while I wasn't immediately affected, the tragedy that unfolded at the finish line and the fact that I had vastly underestimated the challenges of the course meant that my trip to Boston wasn't as memorable - at least not in a positive way - as some of my other marathon travels.

At the same time, I had very compelling reasons to run at Vienna. For one, my parents and my sister still live there, and my brother - currently in Germany - isn't too far away either. All of 2013 had gone by without me seeing them, and that's not nearly enough! Of course, I can only make the transatlantic voyage so many times, and thus the prospect of visiting my parents and running a marathon in my home town were too good to refuse. Come January, I had the plane tickets booked and the race registration to the 2014 running of the VCM in my pocket.

I landed in Austria a few days early, with plenty of time to get acclimatized. My final race day prep consisted of aggressive carbo-loading 72 and 48 hours prior to the Sunday race. On Saturday, I visited the expo at the "Messezentrum Wien" and was curious about how it would compare to expos at major US races. The trend towards fewer giveaways was apparent on this side of the Atlantic as well, and astonishingly, not even a race tee was included with the registration!

The final finish line approach.
Race morning was one of the most relaxed I can recall. After a light breakfast, my dad dropped me off at the closest metro station and 20 minutes later, I arrived at the start line. At US races, I usually try to show up 90 minutes in advance, but here at this time the place was empty! As such, I had all the time I needed to do an extensive warm-up routine, consisting of a 2 mile jog, strides, skips and hops. All the time I made sure to top-off my energy supplies with Hammer HEED, my preferred electrolyte and carbohydrate sports drink. When the time came to line-up the usual bustle among participants ensued, aggravated by a slurry of slower runners all the way up at the front, since nobody was policing corral assignments. Strangely, elite men (by invitation only) started a minute earlier then the general field and elite women. I cannot recall whether the Austrian anthem was played, but I do remember wholeheartedly missing the Star Spangled Banner, the playing of which I've come to love before a race!

Horns sounded and after a quarter mile struggle with angry runners (no doubt because of the congestion at the start line), I began to climb the gentle slope of the "Reichsbruecke", soon crossing beyond the Danube and running towards the heart of Vienna. The first major change of scenery came after a few kilometers with entry into the Prater, Vienna's equivalent of the NYC Central Park. This section, on which I would run again later in the race, proved to be one of the highlights of this race. The "Hauptalle", the main avenue through the park, is a nearly 10K flat straight surrounded by woods. It provided a calm backdrop in the second half of the race when intense focus on the task at hand became necessary.

Next, I was back on a trajectory aimed at the city center. A bit of background Vienna's layout: its central district, the "Innere Stadt", is surrounded by an avenue, the "Ring". This circular road passes alongside some of Vienna's most famous landmarks and attractions. On race day, the road is entirely closed to traffic as the race course travels along the "Ring" and finishes at the adjacent "Heldenplatz". Here, the crowds were thickest, though the forecast of rain and prevalent winds kept the turnout below average. I was on pace at 5:50-5:55 min/mi for the majority of the race, and I distinctly recall two sections facing strong headwinds in which doing so took considerable effort!

At the halfway point I ran by my dad, who handed me a fresh bottle of HEED. With fatigue setting in, the full bottled weighed my arms down heavily, and so I dropped it off at mile 20. Around this time, the course had made its way back to the "Hauptalle", and I was running at the limit of my abilities. It was good to see my friends and family cheering at the sidelines. Finally, with 2 miles left to go we were back on the "Ring", and though I kept passing competitors until the very end, I could not physically muster the surge my mind was beckoning. I held on to my goal pace, loosing less than 10s/mi over the last three miles, and was able to finish 21st male, 28th overall and with a new personal best of 2:35:40, more than 4 minutes off my previous PR at Philadelphia only a few months earlier! What's more, my name flashed across Austrian national television as the top results were broadcast! Upon analyzing the results, I noted that I finished second among the general (i.e. non-elite, non-invitational) field.

Screenshot of the live coverage of the VCM by ORF1, Austria's most popular TV network.

However, the best had yet to come! Once clearing the disappointing finish area (insufficient foods, large crowds, poor exit ways leading to backups), and after a grueling half mile trek to baggage pick-up, I located the "University Sports Institute" (USI) tent. This academic institution - part of the Austrian university system - was host to a championship titled the "Austrian Academic Championship". The latter was carried out as part of the Vienna City Marathon, and as a graduate of the Medical University of Vienna I was eligible. A few months prior, I had set myself the goal of winning this championship, and with last year's winning time in the lower 2:40s, I considered it a realistic one. After a 30 minute wait, which flew by as I feasted on the excellent buffet provided by USI, it was confirmed that I had won the championship, 2 minutes ahead of the next contender! An awards ceremony followed, and I was delighted to receive first prize from the attending dignitaries.

At the USI finisher's tent and awards ceremony.
In sum, I could not have hoped for a better performance at this race, and despite less-than-ideal conditions, was proud to achieve my longstanding goal of winning the Austrian Academic Championship and setting a new PR in the process!